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Steve Wright, "Children of a Lesser Marxism?"

"Children of a Lesser Marxism?"*

Steve Wright, Historical Materialism


Futuro anteriore. Dai "Quaderni Rossi" ai movimenti globali: ricchezze e limiti dell’operaismo italiano
G. Borio, F. Pozzi & G. Roggero

Rome: Derive Approdi, 2002.

La nefasta utopia di Potere operaio. Lavoro tecnica movimento nel laboratorio politico del Sessantotto

F. Berardi

Rome: Castelvecchi. 1998.


While it has inspired more than its share of critical essays and polemics over the past forty years, the political tendency of operaismo (workerism) has been the subject of few book-length analyses in Italy or elsewhere. Perhaps this is less surprising in the English-speaking world, where for whatever reason, Italian workerism has commonly been passed over in discussions of postwar marxism(s).(1)

In Italy’s case this is a little more perplexing, given operaismo’s influence for many years within the local left and labour movement. Back in the late seventies, it is true, there was a collection of papers from a conference organised by the Istituto Gramsci. There leading Communist party (PCI) intellectuals — many of them former workerists — grappled with the tendency’s historical significance, as well as its meaning for their own political commitments of that time.(2)

Interestingly enough, the conference in question also allowed a certain space for contributions from workerist intellectuals deemed ‘to reek of autonomia’,(3) at a time when that movement and the PCI were themselves daggers drawn. In any case, the arrests of 1979 onwards, led by Judge Calogero (himself close to the PCI), both put the final nail in Autonomia as a mass phenomenon, and marginalised operaismo as a current within Italy’s cultural and political life. To use a much-quoted phrase of Primo Moroni and Nanni Balestrini, the years that followed were ones of ‘cynicism, opportunism and fear’,(4) granting little time or space for dreams of a life beyond capital and the state.The revival of social conflict in Italy over the past decade or so has seen a growing curiosity there about operaismo, as well as about those movements that have been touched by it in some way. More recently, the English-speaking world has also witnessed the publishing success of the book Empire, co-authored by Antonio Negri, himself once a leading exponent of Italian workerism.(5) Within the activist networks that have come together since the Zapatistas first launched their appeals ‘for humanity against neo-liberalism’, there has likewise been a fascination with some sections of the Italian radical left whose (far distant) origins lie in Autonomia.

In a certain sense, both Empire and the organisations Ya Basta/Tute Bianche represent distinctive (if in part convergent) attempts to settle accounts with, and move beyond, those workerist ways of seeing and doing first developed in the sixties and seventies. For those who would like to draw their own conclusions on the matter, there is now a growing body of literature that seeks to explore in a critical fashion the trajectory of operaismo as a distinctive marxist tendency. In English, beyond my own recent survey,(6) there is Patrick Cuninghame’s important research,(7) including his as yet-unpublished doctoral dissertation concerning organisational expressions of working class autonomy after 1968. In Italian, apart from some stimulating essays in the journal Intermarx and elsewhere,(8) recent years have seen the publication of Franco Berardi’s reflections upon the experience and legacy of the revolutionary group Potere Operaio (Potop), and now in 2002 the volume Futuro anteriore by Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi and Gigi Roggero.


Why pay any attention to Italian workerism? Now that more and more of Negri’s writings are appearing in English, what else is there to know about this tendency? To start with, Negri’s work is far from the sum total of operaismo, just as his politics of the seventies hardly exhausted the range of views then to be found either within Potere Operaio or the later movement of Autonomia. More to the point, workerism’s preoccupation with workers’ efforts to overcome the divisions imposed upon them in a given time and space by capital — the discourse it named ‘class composition’ — make its precepts of ongoing interest in this age of dynamic class relations. For the authors of Futuro anteriore, the emergence of new movements against global capital provide an appropriate context within which to look back upon and ‘interrogate that extraordinary experience which emerged over two decades enervated by movements and a level of social conflict unparalleled in this country’s postwar history’ (p. 8).

More than this, they have sought to engage with many of operaismo’s most prominent exponents in search of ‘new political hypotheses, starting from the unresolved nodes of those experiences of which they were protagonists, and confronting these with the present’ (p. 9). Futuro anteriore is thus the outcome of an ambitious research project carried out during the late nineties and early noughts, capped off in 2002 with seminars organised up and down the Italian peninsula, including a weekend conference in Rome.(9)

The authors’ book-length assessment of many of workerism’s central themes is accompanied by a CD-ROM containing transcripts of interviews with the likes of Negri and nearly sixty others, interviews which form the raw material of the authors’ own reflections. Indeed, as I hope to show, the book merits a careful look for these transcripts alone.

Borio, Pozzi and Roggero present their book as an exercise in conricerca, that process of ‘joint’ research with social protagonists pioneered by Danilo Montaldi and others in the fifties, then embraced by workerism as its own. I’m not so convinced of this, as the book seems to be more one way of reading the variegated oral sources assembled by the authors through the research project, rather than a collectively organised enterprise. This is not a criticism, however. In providing transcripts of these interviews, the authors have made it possible for readers — perhaps I should say ‘readers with stamina’ — the means through which they too can begin to construct their own sense of the complex experiences of operaismo, as well as the various organisational currents upon which it left its mark: the autonomist movement (or rather, ‘the various Autonomies’, as the authors suggest), Potere Operaio, the Movement of ’77, and so on.

Within the English-speaking world, Antonio Negri is without question the best known figure to have been associated with operaismo. By contrast, rather fewer readers of English will have heard of Romano Alquati, whose writings of the past forty years or more stretch from documenting the emergence of militancy within FIAT’s massive Mirafiori plant, to more recent reflections upon the virtual and the nature of labour.(10) All the same, it is Alquati who is a key influence behind Futuro anteriore, as the authors openly acknowledge.

Always an iconoclast — back in the fifties his politics, like those of his friend Montaldi, were in part an attempt to mix Castoriadis and Lenin — Alquati has long been fascinated with the nature of working class subjectivity, starting with the formation of militants within struggles. The authors of Futuro anteriore share this fascination, with one of the more intriguing themes of the book being precisely the relationship between militants, cadres and theoreticians within revolutionary movements.

Futuro anteriore’s CD-ROM ‘book within a book’ contains information about many radical journals of the seventies, an extensive bibliography, details of relevant web sites, and some brief information on Pozzi’s parallel project on Italian feminism. The centrepiece here, however, is the collection of interviews recorded between 1999 and 2001. Along with the tendency’s ‘big names’ — notably Negri, Alquati, Mario Tronti and Sergio Bologna — Futuro anteriore provides discussions with a couple of dozen of those comrades most closely associated in the public eye with operaismo’s development as either a distinctive theoretical school and/or an ensemble of political organisations: people like Ferruccio Gambino, Oreste Scalzone, Franco Piperno and Marco Revelli. Beyond this, there is a smattering of workerism’s critics (from within as well as outside the old autonomist movement), along with the thoughts of some younger comrades who came to operaismo in the wake of the defeats of 1979—81.

If this were all, the CD-ROM would already be more than noteworthy. But Borio, Pozzi and Roggero have gone further, also interviewing a range of individuals active in Potere Operaio and/or Autonomia primarily at a regional level. Perhaps there is no surprise in this, given that. much of Borio’s own activity as an autonomist in the seventies had been within that layer of militants which provided a channel of communication between local and national initiatives — and, in a certain sense, between some of operaismo’s leading theorists and campaigns in the factory and community. In any case, it is this subset of interviews that adds depth to the collection, allowing the reader real insights into the efforts then made to translate operaista ideology into political practice.

Having said this, there are still some gaps worth noting amongst the sample of respondents. Perhaps the most obvious absence is from that part of the Italian libertarian left most influenced by operaismo: in particular, the circles that would produce the journal Collegamenti.(12) And while there are interviews with Silvia Federici and Alisa del Re, it would have been useful to have heard more from the broad circle of workerist-feminists to which they have belonged (although it may be that these will be better represented in Pozzi’s forthcoming study of Italian feminism).(13) There are also a few prominent male operaisti absent from the interviews (Massimo Cacciari and Nanni Balestrini are two obvious names that spring to mind): perhaps both were amongst ‘the few’ (p. 31) approached who chose not to take part.

Borio, Pozzi and Roggero organise their book around a number of related themes. After presenting their methodology and reviewing the political and cultural formation of their respondents, they devote a chapter to a discussion of ‘workerism or workerisms?’ They identify two operaismi in the postwar Italian experience: that of the reviews such as Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia before 1968, in which the likes of Tronti and Negri first made their mark as theoreticians, and that of Potere Operaio and the autonomist movement in the years that followed. Both, they argue, are ‘political’ workerisms. By this they mean that, unlike other experiences that might also be termed workerist (for example, in and around the metalworkers’ unions of the seventies), these saw in the working class ‘not a weakness to defend nor a condition to exalt, but rather a force to use for a project of transformation, one able to surpass and extinguish both the working class condition [operaietà] and labour’ (p. 69). Beyond the class in itself, or even the class for itself, the workerists sought to chart the emergence of ‘a class against itself, against its own proletarian condition, against its own being as commodity’ (p. 83). During the sixties, many operaisti believed that they had found such a subject in the so-called ‘mass worker’. This was workerist shorthand for a new class composition, those tens of thousands of ‘fordist nihilists’ (Alquati) who had come to the cities of northern Italy to meet capital’s demand for assembly line fodder, only to wreak havoc upon the latter at decade’s end during the so-called ‘Hot Autumn’.

Another chapter of the book seeks the interviewees’ opinions of more contemporary issues, from debates around post-fordism, ‘general intellect’, the place of the Internet and virtual communication within social relations today, to the restructuring of classes since the seventies and the legacy of marxist orthodoxy for operaismo itself. This section draws out both the affinities that continue to unite many of the respondents, as well as some of those sharp differences that have developed between them over the years. In any case, a number of these arguments will already be familiar to English-language readers, above all from the volume Radical Thought in Italy. It is also a section where the authors’ debt to Alquati is most evident, drawing upon his discussion of the distinctiveness of ‘generic-human-active-capacity’ as the most special commodity within a capitalist society (p. 131).

While themselves steeped in the workerist tradition, Borio, Pozzi and Roggero do not shy away from the tendency’s practical failings. As an exploration of Italian operaismo’s ‘riches and limits’ (this being the book’s subtitle), Futuro anteriore locates the most important of these failings in ‘the incapacity to elaborate a new political project adequate to its own rupture with the socialist-communist tradition [socialcomunismo storico]’ (p. 8).

Having helped to stir up a hornet’s nest within Italy’s industrial landscape during 1969, most workerists were subsequently unable to do more than propose some variant of traditional communist political structures as the most suitable instrument to carry such instances of working class self-organisation further. Those like Mario Dalmaviva, a founding member of Potere Operaio that year, pinned their hopes on a new leninist party; for Tronti and those closest to him, the promise of the PCI still seemed far from exhausted. But as Dalmaviva recalls in his interview, many of the best activists within the mass worker turned their backs on both choices, preferring to gamble on revitalising the union movement through the new network of factory councils formed in those years. This was to be only one of the surprises that the seventies held in store for operaismo. Above all, the absence of a political project adequate to the class composition around them — one able to undermine ‘the intrinsically political nature of [capitalist] social relations’ (p. 271) — continued to be the most fundamental stumbling block to the workerists’ designs for social subversion.

For Borio, Pozzi and Roggero, any effort to go beyond operaismo on this front requires ‘a network of critical elaboration and debate that knows how to invert the desperate tendency towards political fragmentation and the acceptance, conscious or otherwise, of the capitalist horizon’s categories of thought’ (p. 277). In the end, one does not have to concur with the language the authors choose in describing such a network [a ‘(plural and collective) vanguard elite’ (p. 278)] in order to concede their central point. And if the workerists often got the answers wrong a generation ago, there is still much to learn from what Alisa del Re cites in her interview as ‘the thing that I miss the most … that collective intelligence that we had set in motion in the seventies’.


Much of the ‘riches and limits of Italian workerism’ emerges most clearly through the interviews conducted for Futuro anteriore, and it is to these that I now want to turn.(14) Many participants from the generation emerging in the sixties recall that they first cut its teeth on the works of Tronti, in particular his book Operai e Capitale (‘the bible of Potere Operaio’, according to Claudio Greppi). Greppi also remembers meetings of Quaderni Rossi as boring, full of long silences, while those of Classe Operaia were ‘much more entertaining’. Tronti himself looks back upon operaismo as only one phase in his political life, albeit a fundamental one, and recalls his wariness of the student movement of 1968, which he largely viewed from the outside. More poignantly, he suggests that the great worker upsurge of 1969 was perhaps more the ‘twilight’ than the ‘dawn’ of something new, and reveals his increasing preoccupation with efforts to ensure that working class memory not be ‘dispersed into nothing’.

One of the important aspects of Futuro anteriore’s interviews is that they offer access not only to the worldviews of a wide range of participants, but also reminiscences of some of the more extraordinary figures within the tendency who are no longer with us. One of these is Guido Bianchini, a former partisan and union organiser who both performed much of Potop’s legwork in the Emilia region, and provided the group with its critical conscience.(15)

Lauso Zagato cites Bianchini’s great talent for communication, and his efforts to counter that Eurocentrism which has rarely been far from workerist outlooks. Greppi has a similar story to tell about Bianchini the networker and mentor; allegedly, the present day political class in the city of Ferrara was largely formed through its encounter with Bianchini, who ‘creamed off’ the best militants for Potere Operaio, leaving behind only ‘the village idiot’ for the PCI. Another formative influence recalled in the interviews is Primo Moroni, who worked with Bologna and others in the important seventies journal Primo Maggio, and whose Calusca bookshop provided a crucial bridge between the aftermath of 1968 and the generations of the eighties and nineties.(16) Raf Scelsci, later a key player in the cyberculture zine Decoder, recalls the material encouragement that Moroni provided to Milan’s nascent punk scene, at a time when more traditional leftists were likely to offer only fisticuffs. A third comrade fondly remembered is Luciano Ferrari Bravo, a fine writer of political theory doomed to years of prison thanks to the false charges brought by the likes of Calogero.(17)

During the seventies, Ferrari Bravo worked in the University of Padova’s Institute of Political Science, where Negri had assembled an impressive array of workerist intellectuals. One of them, Alisa del Re, recalls a certain intellectual elitism within the Institute, that drew its sustenance as much from familiarity with the experience of worker militants at Venice’s petrochemical plants as it did from close attention to the Grundrisse and Capital. In her words, ‘the most evident form of this was the phrase “frankly, comrade, I don’t understand you”, which actually meant “you’re a fuckwit”’.

Many of the interviews register the impact of Negri’s intellect, and perhaps even more so, of his force of personality. Certainly few have claimed over the years that his texts, whatever their erudition, are an easy read. According to del Re, ‘at the beginning I didn’t understand what he [Negri] wrote, I swear, now perhaps it seems he writes a bit better but I still don’t understand any of it, and in any case he wrote things that didn’t interest me very much’. Instead, what she most valued from that time was ‘Toni’s proximity, his capacity to convince you that we had to act as if the revolution was already underway … it’s something I miss’. For his part, Greppi is rather more dubious about the merits of what he calls Negri’s ‘extraordinary capacity to convince himself and others of things’.

In a similar vein, many of the interviewees offer quite different recollections and assessments of Potere Operaio itself. Some praise the antagonistic politics still shared by many former members; others, particularly those from Florence, recall their ability to develop a local policy more grounded than that of many other Potop branches. Ferruccio Gambino, argues that ‘in Potere Operaio, militants who did not dedicate time to study were bound to fail, even if they were able to produce some sporadic fireworks at the local level’. Against this, Greppi thinks Potop did little to develop a sufficiently ‘critical mentality’ within its ranks:

I remember once meeting Luciano [Ferrari Bravo] coming out of a lesson, and he asked, ‘Why do I have to waste my time explaining Toni’s books?’ He was a wreck after two hours of interpreting the thoughts of the great master. Basically this was ideology, rather than the critique of ideologies.

For his part, Bologna has come to believe that the very establishment of the group — a decision in which he had taken a leading role — was a misguided step:

’68 was a great thing, where we succeeded in overturning its initial character, imposing worker-student unity. We gave a working class valence to something that risked becoming, as happened in other countries, an anti-authoritarian rebellion. After that our sorrows began, certainly: we were mistaken to found Potere Operaio, we were mistaken to found an extraparliamentary group. We should have continued working in the social sphere, constructing alternatives there, workers’ centres all over the place, social centres already back then: alternative spaces, liberated spaces. We were mistaken, we were mesmerised by the old idea, the old ambition of conquering power. We fell once again into the ‘communist syndrome’, and we tried to set up an abortion of a bolshevik party that had in mind the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so inevitably got burned by those with more decisive options, such as armed struggle …

Carlo Formenti, who came into contact with the likes of Negri after Potop’s collapse, offers similar criticisms of the autonomist movement’s self-styled ‘organised’ wing. In particular, he notes ‘the paradox of Autonomia’ as the product ‘of the dissolution of the [post-1968 groups] while maintaining the logic of the party within itself, that is the logic of leading cadres who had to lead, dominate, direct, coordinate and encompass within a common strategy and tactics everything that moved, every aspect and contradiction’. Until this encounter, Formenti had been a member of Gruppo Gramsci, one of the more interesting of the smaller marxist-leninist organisations formed after the Hot Autumn.

Influential within some factories and schools in Lombardy, and with a number of prominent intellectuals to its name (including Luisa Passerini, Romano Màdera and Giovanni Arrighi), the group built a certain presence within the radical Catholic metalworkers’ union FIM before reconstituting itself with Negri and friends as the Collettivi Politici Operai (CPO). According to Formenti, one reason he chose not to remain long within ‘organised Autonomia’ was the tendency of many of its northern components to establish clandestine structures parallel to their public face: ‘once created … there was inevitably a transversal attraction between the various separate organisms … rapidly leading to the separation of this level from that of class autonomy and from political direction by the movement…’.

Like the book’s authors, many of those interviewed trace the practical failure of the various workerist formations back to the tendency’s inability to follow through the questions of political direction and program. While Borio suggests that the absence of any real programmatic alternative to the armed groups was characteristic of Autonomia as a whole, his account of his own political allies of the time (the CPO, also known as Rosso after their newspaper) is less than flattering:

Negri’s group never confronted the problem of the formation of political militants … throughout the seventies Negri emphasised pushing forward, reaching and forcing along the discourse on struggles. He said: the struggle, power, the strength of the class, its organised segments and parts, have reached a level that is irreversible. This focus on the contingent might even be considered a necessary tactic for carrying the struggle forward, for leading the conflict to more advanced dimensions. But in reality, from a theoretical point of view, if you look not only at the immediate situation, but in terms of a broader project, it was a great political error, even a catastrophe.

Similar criticisms are offered by Ferruccio Dendena. While I’ve never been certain how seriously to take Jacopo Fo’s account of baiting Negri during meetings of Rosso’s so-called ‘clandestine structure’,(18) Dendena is in very little doubt that such antipathy was widespread within the Milan-based group: ‘the youths of our collectives hated [the leadership] … even more than Calogero did’.

Further glimpses into the provincial autonomist movement are provided by the interview with Sergio Bianchi, whose experiences of the seventies are recounted in Nanni Balestrini’s novel The Unseen.(19) Bianchi begins by citing his ‘fortune’ in not having spent any time in the far left organisations formed immediately after 1968. For the circle of working class youth of which Bianchi was part, employed in the many small factories outside Milan, there was a certain attraction to be found both in many traditional workerist precepts, as well as Negri’s more recent arguments about the ascendancy of a new, ‘socialised’ proletariat:

A slogan like ‘the refusal of work’ … corresponded to a material and immediate need not to accept those living conditions; only later did we understand that it also had a very relevant theoretical basis … What interested us was raising hell within the workplace, challenging the factory regime.

Making little headway at organising workplace by workplace, his group established one of Italy’s first squatted social centres, as a launching pad from which to address industrial matters on a territorial basis. Unable to bridge the cultural chasm that separated them from many older workmates, their struggle against management discipline ultimately led — as was so often the case at that time — out of the factory altogether: ‘I’m not talking of a few people, a small group, but rather of hundreds of subjects who had been grounded in the workplace’.

Finally, the interviews with militants like Bianchi and Dendena also make clear the shifting and often uneasy relations that characterised Autonomia Operaia as a national movement. Having fended off various attempts at ‘colonisation’ from groups based in the big smoke of Milan, Bianchi was clearly also unimpressed with the autonomists in the nearby city of Varese, describing their politics as ‘prefabricated … they simply recited a series of slogans’. As for the Veneto region, Zagato speaks of Padua and Venice as ‘two different things, at war with each other from the word go’, while Mario Piccinini in Vicenza suggests that, beyond a broad debt to Negri’s political and theoretical work, the earlier Potop might have been less homogenous ideologically than was first supposed: ‘we were more trontian than negrian, perhaps also because Toni was 30 kilometers away …’

While the focus of most interviewees is on the experience and legacy of workerist politics, their reflections upon more recent political debates are equalling intriguing. If many have moved some considerable distance in outlook over the years, their judgements of contemporary issues and controversies often remain astute and of interest. Negri, for example, wonders whether ‘luxemburgism’ might not be ‘the leninism of this epoch’, adding a little later:

The idea that the party has in hand the whole complexity of elements involved in a process of radical transformation is worthy of paranoiacs. It’s like saying, ‘I’m God’ …

For his part, Bologna is critical of Negri’s emphasis in recent years upon the most spectacular, visible aspects of the circulation of struggle amongst movements against global capital, offering these thoughts by way of contrast:

Conflict as the moment of identity, as ‘the’ moment of constitution, of politics, of class constitution … this for me is a forced understanding. Amongst other things, this conception still attributes great value to visibility. The ‘other’, in order to be such, must be visible, manifest, and the more clamorous the conflict, the greater the identity it confers … This is the back door through which the traditional logic of politics is returned to play. I prefer the image of beams eaten from within by termites, I prefer a non-visible, non-spectacular path, the idea of the silent growth of a body that is foreign to the sort of visibility that leaves you hostage to the universe of mediation.

There is much more in these interviews than can be recounted here. There is Bruno Cartosio’s account of Primo Maggio’s founding by dissident workerists keen to explore earlier instances of class autonomy such as the IWW, as well as the more recent restructuring (capital’s ‘revolution from above’) unleashed in response to the Hot Autumn.

Then there is Massimo De Angelis’ interview which, apart from providing a detailed critique of Empire, describes his own encounter, courtesy of Harry Cleaver, with the distinctively American brand of autonomist marxism, with its attention to unpaid no less than salaried layers within the working class.

Paolo Benvegnu recounts the long passage that has led him from the Veneto’s leading autonomist group to union activism and membership of Rifondazione Comunista, while Maria Grazia Meriggi ponders left historiography, Negri’s relations with Milan’s intellectual left, and the nature of Italian universities today. Vincenzo Miliucci muses upon his own journey from PCI activist to leading member of the ‘Volsci’ (for many years the dominant organisation within the Autonomia of Rome, and one generally untouched by workerist sensibilities), while Franco Berardi (Bifo) tells of falling out with both Negri’s group and the Volsci, after some members of the latter joined Lotta Continua stewards in physically disrupting a national feminist demonstration in late 1975.


As Greppi points out in his Futuro anteriore interview, former members of Potere Operaio have to date been far less interested than some ex-Lotta Continua militants in recounting in public the history of their organisation.(20) So far as I know, Berardi’s La nefasta utopia is the first book-length account of the Potop experience. Even then, as its author admits, the book is less a history proper than a consideration of the legacy of that group’s particular approach to workerist theory.

Berardi’s book has three clearly delineated parts. The first of these presents the distinctive way of seeing developed by Tronti, Negri and others in the sixties, while the second traces the rise and fall of Potere Operaio. The book’s final section — its most provocative — explores a number of contemporary issues that, if the author is to be believed, are best viewed through the particular lens of what he calls the ‘metodo composizionista’. Berardi doesn’t care for the label ‘workerism’: to his mind, this is a term ‘worthy of journalists, ie worthless’ (p. 17). Instead, he places the emphasis upon the method developed and refined through the analysis of class composition, which grasps social processes as a ‘heterogeneous becoming’ (p. 18). In Berardi’s view, this method has pushed past the original attention to class relations, to some unknown point ‘beyond the political’.

Berardi writes in a manner that is very accessible, especially to the reader whose first language is English. His is a clean yet lively prose, far from the more turgid style found in certain workerist texts from the late sixties onwards. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given his longstanding preoccupation with political communication,(21) including a formative role in important linguistic experiments such as Radio Alice and the journal A/traverso. In any case, the opening section of Berardi’s book offers a good introduction to that ‘perspective of estrangement’ first laid out in the pages of Quaderni Rossi, Classe Operaia, and Operai e Capitale. ‘Seen from its positive side’, we are told, ‘alienation is estrangement, the refusal of working class sociality to feel part of the capitalist totality’ (p. 82). Rather provocatively, Berardi opens this section with a brief discussion of those philosophical tracts that circulated in and around the international student movement of 1968, from works of Sartre and Marcuse to Marx’s own Paris Manuscripts. Suggesting that Tronti’s own understanding of the working class was infused by a ‘hard hegelianism’, Berardi concedes that from the beginning, workerism was shot through with ‘an exaltation of the Subject’ (p. 38) that too often crowded out its emphasis upon class composition as the gauge of struggle and program.

Berardi sets out the political reading of class relations developed in Quaderni Rossi, and then the so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ unveiled by Tronti in his 1964 essay "Lenin in England", where the working class is presented as the prime mover of struggle and innovation within capitalist society. While the manner in which Tronti argues this allows him to move beyond conventional marxist notions of ‘class consciousness’, Berardi argues that it also represents a step back, with ultimate recourse to the leninist party as the key (f)actor needed to recompose labour power as a class subject. Against this, Berardi paraphrases Hans-Jurgen Krahl: ‘what meaning can leninism ever have in the metropoles? What meaning can the idea of the cadre party ever have when mental labour has become a superindividual continuum that connects and globalises innumerable brains?’ (p. 69).

For me at least, the most engrossing section of the book is the central one, which deals with the experience of Potere Operaio. Unlike some other accounts, Berardi’s emphasises the continuity between the regional grouping Potere Operaio veneziano-emiliano formed before 1968, and the national organisation later established between this and like-minded circles in other parts of the country. In his reconstruction, Potere Operaio was an organisation with two souls: one stressing mass autonomy and the deployment of class composition analysis as the ultimate barometer of practice, the second borrowing from the bolshevik tradition in order to ward off the actions of the class enemy. Berardi also argues that very different linguistic consequences followed on from this cleft within Potere Operaio’s inner being. On one side there was the ‘relaxed, ironical’ tone of ‘a possible mass epicurianism’ embodied in the struggle against work; on the other there were the ‘vaguely hysterical … promethean’ calls to build the party (p. 119). Co-existent within workerism from the beginning, these two forms of expression had alternatively butted heads or talked past each throughout the sixties.

Then again, given the prevalence within Potere Operaio almost from its foundation of the ‘promethean’ discourse, it was often hard to find anything ‘relaxed’ within the group’s own press, as Patrizia Violi’s analysis of Italian far left publications ably documents.(22) Berardi believes that beyond ‘suffocating the group’s originality’ (p. 187), Potere Operaio’s early leninist turn found its most serious consequences in the alienation of many of its workplace activists and contacts. In increasing numbers, these turned their back upon the group, pinning their hopes for collective self-organisation instead either on the mainstream ‘union of councils’, or else the factory-based collectives of the early Autonomia (pp. 131–32). In response, the group’s talk of ‘militarising the movement’ grew increasingly shrill; finding itself more and more isolated, Potop collapsed in all but name by 1973.

The last part of the book concerns contemporary themes, from cybertime and cultural mutation to postmodern fascism and globalisation. This is the Berardi best known to English-speaking connoisseurs of such electronic forums as nettime. While remaining unconvinced by his assertion that Potere Operaio held some privileged grasp upon the potentialities contained within capitalist development, I found many of the reflections here to be thought-provoking, starting with those concerning the changed class terrain of recent years.

The book ends on a positive note, suggesting that ‘the movement of the refusal of wage labour’ must be understood as a manifestation of the ‘irreversible eruption’ onto the world stage last century of women as social subjects (p. 236). And yet there is a heavy air of pessimism overhanging all this, given what Berardi sees as capital’s efforts — shades here of Jacques Camatte — to domesticate part of humanity and toss the rest into the dumpster of history:

The collapse of the socialist regimes was inscribed in the horizon of possibilities foreseen by Potere Operaio’s analysis. What instead was certainly alien to its predictions was the close connection between the collapse of the Soviet empire and the crisis of every internationalist perspective, and so the outbreak on a planetary scale of a civil war over the question of identity (p. 188) … It is no longer true that the decisive forces are capital and the working class. As in a game of mirrors, the context has been fragmented, multiplied, overturned. Capital and working class continue to confront each other, but in a manner that overturns their relation in the sixties: the initiative (which then belonged to the workers) has today decisively shifted to international finance capital. At the same time two other figures have appeared: the virtual class, that is the cycle of globalised mental labour; and the residual class, the shapeless mass of populations excluded from (or never part of) the production cycle, which press aggressively to conquer a space of survival and recognition within the planetary spectacle (p. 189).

Unfortunately, the very brevity of the reflections in this section mean that such assertions are never really fleshed out. However intriguing, in the end they fall short of that somber analysis of class composition that is the true ‘theoretical novelty’ (p. 130) of the operaista current at its best.


Given the vagaries of the international book market, it’s unlikely that either of the books under review here will appear in English, at least not any time soon. Nonetheless, as I have tried to show, both are worthy of further attention, and certainly deserve to find new readers outside Italy itself. Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is that extracts of each may be translated, either in left journals or at some movement-related website. Certainly the interviews that inform Futuro anteriore deserve wider circulation: not only those conducted with individuals already known within the English-speaking left, but also — even above all — those with the likes of del Re, Bianchi and Gambino. Taken together, these books, and the source materials that inform them, provide a unique window upon more than twenty years of efforts to abolish ‘the present state of things’. More, they help the reader to draw their own conclusions about the many small triumphs — a long with the real disasters — that this experience has left us. With any luck, they also provide some genuine pointers towards the development of that collective reading of class composition we so desperately need in these uncertain times.


* This title was inspired by the phrase ‘Figli di un operaismo minore’, in Macera 1998, p. 311.

1. For many years, there was little movement on this front outside the efforts of a small number of individuals, starting with Ed Emery, Harry Cleaver and John Merrington. See ‘Preface to 2nd edition’ in Cleaver 2000; Linebaugh 1997; and the numerous Red Notes publications produced in the seventies and eighties, culminating with Negri 1988. A notable volume in more recent years is Virno and Hardt (eds.) 1996, while Tim Murphy and others also have a number of interesting projects in the pipeline.

2. The conference proceedings are collected in D’Agostini (ed.) 1978.

3. Bologna 1977, p. 68.

4. Balestrini and Moroni 1988, p. 387.

5. See Hardt and Negri 2000.

6. See Wright 2000.

7. See Cuninghame 1995; Cuninghame 1999.

8. See Palano n.d.; Palano 1998; Turchetto 2000; Billi 1999; Urettini 1999.

9. The transcripts of these seminars can be found here.

10. See Alquati 1975; Alquati et al. 1994; Alquati 1996.

11. Members of both these cohorts can today be found amongst the editors of Derive Approdi, a journal closely associated with the publication of the two books under review—see here.

12. See here.

13. Enda Brophy informs me that while Mariarosa Dalla Costa was unavailable for the original interviews, she made a substantial contribution to the Rome conference organised in June 2002 by the book's authors.

14. Another excellent collection of oral sources concerning the Italian radical left, this time specifically addressing the Movement of ’77 in Rome, is Del Bello (ed.) 1997.

15. Some of his more important essays have been collected in Bianchini 1990.

16. Beyond documenting part of his own fascinating life, Moroni was also the unofficial chronicler of Milan’s postwar radical left: see Moroni 1983; Moroni 1994.

17. Some of his more important essays have been collected in Ferrari Bravo 2001.

18. Fo and Parini 1997, pp. 155—6.

19. See Balestrini 1989.

20. For the most recent — and most grand — of such projects, see Cazzullo 1998.

21. Enda Brophy has reminded me of the interesting interplay on this front between Berardi's work and that of Dyer-Witheford 1999. Questions of communication and information are some of the more important fields in which a range of theorists of a workerist background are now finding engagement within the English-speaking world — see for example, Day 2000, and Day 2002.

22. See Violi 1977.


Alquati, Romano 1975, Sulla FIAT e altri scritti, Milan: Feltrinelli.
Alquati, Romano 1996, ‘Sintesi sul lavoro’, Derive Approdi 12-13, Autumn: 10—13.

Alquati, Romano et al. 1994, Sul virtuale, Turin: Velleità Alternative.

Balestrini, Nanni 1989, The Unseen, London: Verso.

Balestrini, Nanni and Primo Moroni 1988, L’orda d’oro, Milan: Sugarco.

Bianchini, Guido 1990, Sul sindacato e altri scritti, Padua: Edizioni Quaderni del Progetto.

Billi, Fabrizio (1999) ‘Dal miracolo economico all’autunno caldo. Operai e operaisti negli anni sessanta’ in Il lungo decennio. L’Italia prima del 68, Verona: Cierre edizioni, edited by Carmelo Adagio et al.

Bologna, Sergio 1977, ‘Riposta a Napoleoni’, Saggi sulla moneta. Quaderni di Primo Maggio 2.

Cazzullo, Aldo 1998, I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968-1978: storia di Lotta continua, Milan: Mondadori.

Cleaver, Harry 2000, Reading ‘Capital’ Politically, Leeds: Antitheses.

Cuninghame, Patrick 1995, ‘For an Analysis of Autonomia: An Interview with Sergio Bologna’, here.

Cuninghame, Patrick 1999, ‘The Future At Our Backs: Autonomia and Autonomous Social Movements in 1970s Italy’, here.

D’Agostini, Fabrizio (ed.) 1978, Operaismo e centralità operaia, Rome: Riuniti.

Day, Ron 2000, The Modern Invention of Information, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Day, Ron 2002, ‘Social Capital, Value, and Measure: Antonio Negri's Challenge to Capitalism’, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53, 12: 1074—82.

Del Bello, Claudio (ed.) 1997, Una sparatoria tranquilla. Per una storia orale del ’77, Rome: Odradek.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick 1999, Cyber-Marx, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ferrari Bravo, Luciano 2001, Dal fordismo alla globalizzazione. Cristalli di tempo politico, Rome: Manifestolibri.

Fo, Jacopo and Sergio Parini 1997, ’68. C’era una volta la rivoluzione, Milan: Feltrinelli.

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio 2000, Empire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Linebaugh, Peter 1997, ‘John Merrington — Gone to Glory’, Capital & Class 62, Summer: 166—82.

Macera, Stefano 1998, ‘Una discussione inattuale: Note su memoria di classe e scienza della soggettività’, Vis-à-Vis 6.

Moroni, Primo 1983, ‘Da “Don Lisander” alla “Calusca”: l’Autobiografia di Primo Moroni’, Primo Maggio 18, Autumn-Winter: 27—37.

Moroni, Primo 1994, ‘Origine dei centri sociali autogestiti a Milano: Appunti per una storia possibile’ in Francesco Adinolfi et al. Comunità virtuali: I centri sociali in Italia, Rome: Manifestolibri.

Negri, Antonio 1988, Revolution Retrieved, London: Red Notes.

Palano, Damiano n.d., ‘Il bandolo della matassa. Forza lavoro, composizione di classe e capitale sociale: note sul metodo dell'inchiesta’, here.

Palano, Damiano 1998, 'Cercare un centro di gravità permanente? Fabbrica Società Antagonismo', here.

Turchetto, Maria 2000, ‘Dall’“operaio massa” all’“imprenditorialità comune”: la sconcertante parabola dell’operaismo italiano’, here.

Urettini, Luigi (1999) ‘L’operaismo veneta da “Il Progesso Veneto” a “Potere operaio”’ in Il lungo decennio. L’Italia prima del 68, Verona: Cierre edizioni, edited by Carmelo Adagio et al.

Violi, Patrizia 1977, I giornali dell’estrema sinistra, Milan: Garzanti.

Virno, Paolo and Michael Hardt (eds.) 1996, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wright, Steve 2002, Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian autonomist marxism, London: Pluto.

[This review essay was first published in Historical Materialism 12 (1) (2004).]